The following article written by Sherry Simpson in the November 2007 issue of Alaska Magazine, really tells the story of the rebirth of Black Rapids.
Every time I drive past the Black Rapids Glacier, I stop at the pullout above the Delta River for a good, long stare. Deep in the folds between the stony drama of the mountains, the glacier lurks.
That’s the way it feels, anyhow, after you read accounts of how the glacier suddenly heaved into life in late 1936 and sprinted for the Richardson Highway. The owners of nearby Rapids Roadhouse had felt tremors since October, but not until December did they realize a wall of ice was jostling and tumbling up the valley at a pace they estimated at 200 feet a day.
“It groans and rumbles like something alive,” reported lodgekeeper Sue Revell. “The dogs bark at it.” A “living sinister mass” is how another observer described it. Time magazine alerted the nation to the “runaway glacier.” What surprised everybody, I think, wasn’t just that glaciers gallop, but that sometimes Alaska’s landscape changes radically right before your eyes.
On a recent road trip I was so busy looking for the glacier that the area’s newest change almost sneaked past. The familiar landmark of the closed Rapids Roadhouse sat hollow-eyed beside the road. But a shiny new building stood on the bluff above. It was shockingly elegant. Architecture along the road tends toward the, shall we say, functional: plywood palaces, aging trailers, military installations. But this place presented French doors, wrought-iron railings, an expansive balcony—good heavens, was that stained glass? Clearly I need to drive the Richardson more often.
A banner draped from across the roadhouse explained, “The Lodge at Black Rapids: Opening in 2007.” Owner Annie Hopper laughed about it over the phone. “I’ve just gotta to get some red paint and change it to an eight,” she said. That’s what comes of being an optimist and a problem solver. After several years of hard labor—work that at times probably seemed, umm, glacial—she’d declared victory just a bit too soon. In June 2008 (really!), the lodge will open officially. Along with continuing renovation of the roadhouse, travelers again will have reasons to stop at one of the most historic and scenic places in Alaska, “where the past never left and the future’s on the bluff,” as Hopper’s husband, Michael, said.
Compared with some obstacles they’ve encountered, a premature banner is easy to fix. They bought the property with a partner, Rich Landon of Colorado, and no clear plans. Creating a lodge seemed appealing to Michael, but he intended to bulldoze the roadhouse, which has been slowly falling into time’s trash heap since it closed in 1993. A call to the Alaska Department of History and Archaeology convinced Annie that the building was too embedded in historical significance to discard.
The roadhouse remains a monument to the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, which evolved from a rugged route into a wagon road best traveled in winter and, finally, into the Richardson Highway. More than 30 roadhouses appeared to serve early travelers. Peter Findler opened the Rapids Roadhouse in a tent in 1901 and built a log structure the following winter, helped by two unsuccessful prospectors from nearby Gunny Sack Creek, who were known as Gunny Sack Jack and The Gunny Sack Kid. (Apparently they liked gunny sacks.)
By 1906 at least three stage companies made regular runs with passengers, mail and freight. Winter travel could be brutal, and terrible blizzards sometimes claimed victims. A former driver named Fred Davies described Rapids Roadhouse as the place where sleighs drawn by four to six horses would switch to single-horse sleds to cross the mountains through Isabel Pass to Paxson’s roadhouse.
Hunting legend Frank Glaser ran the place between 1919 and 1924, also selling game to Alaska Road Commission crews and other roadhouses. By then, most lodgings had closed as travelers abandoned the trail for the Alaska Railroad, which followed roughly the route of today’s Parks Highway. Even as late as 1940, the Valdez Trail was hardly more than a wagon road, Glaser wrote.
Still, people worried whether the road and the roadhouse would escape the “Galloping Glacier” as it surged toward both, advancing at least three miles in a few months. Pioneer archeologist Otto Geist investigated the glacier twice. “The roadhouse shook perceptibly and we could hear the distant moaning glacier … for all the world like a gigantic dredge,” he wrote in Time. Fortunately, the glacier slowed and stopped before reaching the river. Now receding, it’s still one of Alaska’s most-studied glaciers.
The roadhouse’s second life began with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, followed by restoration grants. “The next thing you know we’re getting dirty,” Annie said. Ester log-builder Mike Musick and Sandy Jamieson, a well-known artist also experienced in log construction and historical restoration, led scores of talented volunteers rescuing logs and other tasks. “By stabilizing it, we saved it,” Annie said.
In the meantime, Michael designed the lodge in homage to the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. “Our vision is that it would be part of the environment, not take away from it,” Annie said. Building materials—a copper roof that will soften to a green patina, black slate siding that echoes the roiling rapids—will blend into a landscape that needs no distraction. Solar and wind power will be a pleasant irony, because the trans-Alaska pipeline and Pump Station 10 are neighbors. Alaska artisans created custom tilework, the winding staircase, stained glass in the belvedere and other original touches. A series of timber-framing schools attracted master builders and apprentices.
“So all those people, now they’re part of the building,” Annie said.
The project has survived everything from July snowfall to a 7.9 earthquake along the Denali Fault in 2002. Personal challenges included the loss of their fathers and cancer treatment for Michael. Annie just tells anyone pointing out some problem or other, “Do you think this is going to stop us? I don’t think so.”
What has inspired her are scores of serendipitous encounters and helpful gestures. “Someone stops by and drops off fish and they feed you for a week,” Annie said. “My neighbor is a biologist and turns out to be an expert in historic log corners with an axe … The stories go on and on and on like that.”
As it turns out, they’re not just building structures, they’re building communities. They’ve discovered how many people in Alaska are multi-talented—say, for example, two psychologists who love the outdoors and have taken a fancy to history and inn-keeping as they embark on a years-long project, all the while (and this is the miraculous part) remaining married.
The Hoppers have roughly a zillion ideas for the roadhouse and lodge. The lodge will be ideal for those who want to hike, ski, stare at the scenery, watch northern lights, eat delicious food—people who like wilderness and a good glass of wine afterward, Annie joked. The roadhouse will draw casual travelers who’ll appreciate an art gallery, a good meal, a chance to learn some local history.
“My secret wish is to reinvent the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” she said, and then she started explaining how they’re going about it. Some things don’t need to be reinvented, though. Like the early travelers, the Hoppers and their friends just kept going until they got there.